The Big Ten West is not as known for its defense as the Big Ten East is, and much of that is because of the respective defensive lines.
It takes the programs in the Big Ten West a bit longer to develop their front fours into formidable foes, and even with a veteran line, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be all that stout.
This year, however, the conference’s best lineman may reside in the West, and the talent levels across the division are improving.
Can they match the East? They won’t necessarily need to, so it may not matter.
All they need to worry about being the best in the division and the rest will take care of itself.
(The number in parentheses is the total number of recruiting stars at defensive line for each team.)
1. Iowa Hawkeyes (42)
Iowa loses all four starters from last season, but don’t get too brokenhearted because they still return First-Team All-Big Ten defensive end AJ Epenesa, who was part of a 3-man rotation last year. Still just a junior, Epenesa may be the best defensive player in the conference and is already looked at as a projected first-round NFL Draft pick next spring. Epenesa is big (6-6 277) and relentless, but he will have more on his plate this season. At the other defensive end will be junior Chauncey Golston, who has played in 24 games the last two season. He finished with 3.5 sacks and 9.0 tackles for loss last year coming off the bench. Together, Golston and Epenesa should be a formidable tandem. Seniors Brady Reiff and Cedrick Lattimore are the two expected starters on the inside. Lattimore started six games in 2017 and added 21 tackles last season. Even though there aren’t many starts here, there is still a good amount of experience and production. Can they repeat as the No. 2 rush defense in the Big Ten?
2. Purdue Boilermakers (52)
Purdue returns five defensive linemen with starting experience thanks to the move of junior linebacker Derrick Barnes to Leo. Barnes tallied 92 tackles, 3.0 sacks, and 8.0 tackles for loss last season. He is expected to be an effective speed rusher for the Boilermakers. On the other side will be true freshman George Karlaftis, who was one of the top defensive end prospects in the 2019 class. He enrolled early and opened spring practice with the ones and never left. Expectations are understandably high for Karlaftis. Both of last year’s starting ends return as well, so there is decent depth here. One of those returners is sophomore Giovanni Reviere, who could also show up at defensive tackle. Senior nose tackle Lorenzo Neal is returning from a torn ACL last year, so they are expected to take it slow through camp. Junior defensive tackle Anthony Watts started 12 games last year and finished with 42 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss. This group returns more experience than maybe any other defensive line in the nation, but they also allowed 15 rushing touchdowns over the final five games of the season last year.
3. Nebraska Cornhuskers (45)
Nebraska is one of three 3-4 defensive teams in the Big Ten, so what they lack in numbers, they make up for in mass per square inch by averaging about 310 pounds across the front three. Junior defensive end Ben Stille started 11 games last year, finishing with 25 tackles and 5.0 sacks. Senior defensive end Khalil Davis was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection last year, following a season where he posted 41 tackles, 3.0 sacks, and 5.0 tackles for loss. His twin brother Carlos, who was also Honorable Mention All-B1G, has 25 starts over the last three seasons and 69 tackles over the last two. The Davis brothers are expected to be part of a defensive end rotation. Oklahoma State transfer Darrion Daniels looks like the guy at nose tackle, and his younger brother Damion Daniels appears to be a capable backup. Being a 3-4 defense, a lot of the sacks and tackles for loss are expected to come from the pass-rushing outside linebackers, but the three guys up front will need to be much more effective against the run than they were a year ago when the Huskers finished 12th in the B1G against the run (195.8 ypg).
4. Northwestern Wildcats (40)
Northwestern loses its two defensive tackles from last season, but starting defensive ends Joe Gaziano and Samdup Miller return. Miller has started every game of his career, but his junior season needs to be his best. He had 53 tackles last season, but just 1.5 sacks. Gaziano is a senior who has started the last 27 games for Northwestern, just like Miller. Gaziano was a Second-Team All-Big Ten selection last season following a year where he led the team with 7.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. He also added 44 tackles and eight quarterback hurries. Senior defensive end Trent Goens provides productive depth as well. On the interior, senior Alex Miller and junior Jake Saunders must step up and set the tone against the run. Saunders has been injured the last two years, but hopes are high that he can stay healthy this season. The Wildcats were fourth in the Big Ten against the run last season (129.6 ypg), and that improved to second in the Big Ten (112.0 ypg) in November. Finding productive defensive tackles will be key in keeping that standard.
5. Minnesota Golden Gophers (47)
Two starters return from a defense last season that was 12th in the Big Ten in yards per carry allowed (5.2), though they were middle of the road in sacks and tackles for loss. The star here is senior defensive end Carter Coughlin, who was a coveted outside linebacker prospect in high school. He enters his third year of starting. He was a Second-Team All-B1G selection last year, thanks to 48 tackles and a team-high 9.5 sacks and 15.0 tackles for loss. The starter on the other side returns as well. Senior Winston DeLattiboudere started five games in each of his first two seasons, but rose to start 12 games last year. The production needs to improve and he will likely be pushed by sophomore Boye Mafe, who had a strong spring and started once as a freshman last year. Senior defensive tackle Sam Renner started three games last year, so he has some experience. Notre Dame transfer Micah Dew-Treadway is hoped to be a starter and producer this year. Sophomore Jamaal Teague had a couple of TFLs as a true freshman last season. PJ Fleck likes his potential.
6. Wisconsin Badgers (33)
The Badgers are one of the three 3-4 defenses in the Big Ten. Two starters depart, including one who moved back to the offensive line. This is not a terribly productive group overall. Junior defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk started six games last season, finishing with 15 tackles, 1.0 sacks, and 2.5 tackles for loss. On the other side should be sophomore Matt Henningsen, who started 10 games and added 32 tackles. Junior Garrett Rand missed last season, but has played in 28 games in his career. Nose tackle Bryson Williams started the final three games as a true freshman last season and is expected to continue to hold down the job. There isn’t anything exciting to mention here. Wisconsin’s run defense last year finished eighth in the Big Ten (155.1 ypg) and their 1.46 sacks per game was 13th in the conference. This group doesn’t necessarily need to get into the backfield, but they do need to keep the line of scrimmage from moving forward. Can they?
7. Illinois Fighting Illini (50)
The loss of defensive end Bobby Roundtree to a spinal injury in the spring was terrible for all involved. Even without the Illini’s leading disruptor from 2018, Illinois still returns a number of players with starting experience. Junior defensive end Owen Carney is the leading returner in sacks, with just 2.5 last year. He added 21 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss while starting eight games last year. The other defensive end looks like either junior Isaiah Gay or former 5-star USC transfer Oluwole Betiku, who have a combined one career tackle for loss. Sophomore defensive tackle Jamal Woods missed last year, but had 3.5 tackles for loss as a true freshman in 2017. Senior tackles Tymir Oliver and Jamal Milan have over 40 starts between them, and senior Kenyon Jackson started eight games on the interior over his first two years. The Illini allowed a Big Ten-worst 6.0 yards per carry last season. Only five teams in the nation were worse.
Big Ten Ratings
Defensive Line — East |